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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Using light to control single brain cells (and thanks to a gene from algae)

Wired has posted an amazing report on how it is possible to control a single neuron in a mouse brain, by zapping it with light. The reason this works is because researchers have also inserted a gene for light sensitivity into the mouse, so the mouse is a mouse-algal hybrid. (Not really -- it's a mouse with one algal gene.) You've got to have a means of getting the light to trigger a single neuron, of course.

This is potentially of great importance, because drugs and electrical stimulation tend to be messy -- affect more than one neuron, or even lots of them. This is an invasive technique, but so are some others that we take for granted. It seems possible to do a great deal of good with this, perhaps curing, say, Parkinson's. In fact, the researchers are working on Parkinson-like mice. It's also possible, of course, that a great deal of harm might be done, but the same thing was, and is, true of techniques less high-tech, such as surgery.

Thanks for reading.

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